Interview: James Cunningham (2011)

james-cunninghamIt’s partially fear,” stand-up comic James Cunningham says, explaining why he hasn’t done an official set in the United States despite his 15 years of experience in Canada. “To be honest with you, I’m kind of scared. I know I can handle a Canadian crowd, no problem, but an American crowd? I don’t know.” Working Author focuses on comics who are based out of Los Angeles or, at the very least, frequent the city during their tours, so James Cunningham is a bit of an exception. However, after catching a bit of his act online, it is plainly obvious that he would thrive if he took his show south of the border. Sitting on the patio of the Ritz-Carlton, sipping drinks, Cunningham shared his history in comedy and talked at length about his other projects.

Despite having never performed his stand-up routine in the US, James Cunningham may already be familiar to many Americans. That’s because he’s the host of Eat St. on the Cooking Channel. College students may also recognize Cunningham for his financial comedy show aimed at younger audiences called Funny Money. “I teach students about how to handle credit cards, how to budget their money, how to invest in mutual funds, bonds, CDs, Roth IRAs, that’s kind of stuff,” Cunningham says, “That’s my bread and butter. That’s like 250 shows a year.” The origin of Funny Money dates back to Cunningham’s earliest days in stand-up comedy when he told jokes about his past as a starving student. Current starving students would approach him after his set and ask for any financial advice he could give to survive the lean times. Eventually, he was convinced that he should turn his advice into a whole show.

“I’ve always been financially savvy,” Cunningham admits, “My dad was an entrepreneur growing up. Entrepreneur is a French word. It means ‘they’re coming to repossess our house again’. I don’t know if you’re aware of that.” He also understands that while he may work in show business, “the most important part of that phrase is ‘business.’” So with his feet firmly grounded, Cunningham workshopped a little show about finances. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get any traction and almost gave up on the project completely on numerous occasions. Luckily, the National Association of Campus Activities (NACA) in the United States caught wind of his show and invited Cunningham to perform a national showcase as well as three regional showcases.

The success of Funny Money in the US was the proof of concept that allowed Cunningham to bring his show to Canadian high schools whose graduates often don’t attend college due to a thriving manufacturing industry that offers a viable alternative to higher education. Funny Money currently reaches 100,000 high school students in Canada and 20,000 college students in the United States. Cunningham sums it all up nicely with, “It’s a comedy show about money. It’s a three-step process. It’s just been this dream come true. I never thought it would blossom into this thing.”

When he’s not performing Funny Money’s or filming Eat St., Cunningham is on a stage behind a microphone, telling jokes. And while he’s expressed some trepidation about performing for American audiences, he has no fears when it comes to being a stand-up comic in general. “There’s just something so pure about it…. What’s theater? What’s every movie? It’s telling a story. And there’s nothing purer than a guy on a microphone by himself, telling a story to a room full of people. That, to me, is the purest form of theater.”

In fact, Cunningham has a degree in theater from the University of Toronto. His original plans were to be a professional actor, but he found himself drawn to stand-up comedy. “I’ve always loved comedy,” Cunningham says, fondly recalling the first time he watched Bill Cosby: Himself on VHS with his family and the impact it had on him. After college, still pursuing his dreams of being an actor, he decided that he needed to gain experience and beef up his résumé, so he began performing at the ubiquitous Yuk Yuk’s comedy clubs, which Cunningham describes as the “McDonald’s of comedy” in Canada. “Every big Canadian guy who was doing comedy came from Yuk Yuk’s.” After winning a contest and discovering his comic chops, Cunningham found that he didn’t have time to make auditions because he was performing stand-up so much.

Today, James Cunningham is one of the most humble comedians around. “Here’s where I am: 15 years in I’m…still learning….” He shakes his head at young comedians who feel entitled to fame and fortune with what little experience they have. “It’s a process. It takes a long time. It’s like being a chef. Yeah, maybe you can turn on the grill. Maybe you can make some stuff. Maybe make some sandwiches, but you’re not a Red Seal.”

According to Cunningham, “One of the hardest things to do is write original [comedy]; there are only so many premises.” He breaks down the anatomy of a joke thusly, “Every bit, what you do is you make a statement. First thing is statement…. This is my topic.” The statement gets the audience following along. “The key is to edit it to make sure you get as much information across in as little bit of time. And then you’ve got your setup. Then you’ve got your punch, punch, punch, punch.” A bit becomes really powerful when it flows together with other bits, which becomes an act, allowing the comic to reference previous jokes in the set, which are called callbacks. A handy iPhone app helps categorize Cunningham’s jokes for easier set-building later on.

Every stand-up comic knows that audiences can be vicious and brutal. In Cunningham’s view, drunk women are the worst kind of heckler. “They think they’re helping you out. They think they’re making the show hilarious…. They just need to be part of this.” Aside from the usual shutdowns, Cunningham’s general method for dealing with hecklers is to always have the crowd on his side. “When you’re in theater school, they say that ‘drama is always to the gods.’ When you perform comedy it’s to the people.” He makes it a point to never be above the crowd.

Cunningham doesn’t like labeling his comedy and he frowns thoughtfully when asked to do so. “Man oh man, that’s got to be one question I just hate. It’s funny, because I don’t know. Am I observational? I’ve never sat back and classified myself. I just try and make people laugh. I just tell my stories and people laugh.” In that context, audiences will find a fantastic raconteur in James Cunningham. He’s very approachable and involves audiences in his stories. He also has a wit that’s fast enough to synthesize the dynamics of liquid situations into his bits, adding a spontaneous flare that feels fresh and exciting.  With any luck, American audiences will get to enjoy his brand of comedy in the near future.

Keep up with James Cunningham on his site www.james-cunningham.com.

Learn more about Funny Money at www.funnymoneyinc.com.